Back in 1982, I was angrier at my parents than I ever had been before, or ever would be again. The reason, as I saw it back then, could not have been any simpler or more egregious: they refused to let me play football.
Football was, and still is, king at the high school I attended in Springfield, Illinois. The football players were the ones that everybody went out to cheer for on a Friday night or a Saturday afternoon. They represented the school in a way that the Math Club and the Drama Club and all the other sports teams and activities never could. Beating Glenwood High, or whatever other schools they happened to be playing against, brought glory not only to the school itself, but to those who put on the pads and played the game.
I missed out on the junior football scene before high school, and played a few years of flag football instead. But that wasn’t the same as the game that Walter Payton and Tony Dorsett and Terry Bradshaw played on TV. Those were the guys that we all wanted to be someday, provided that we worked really hard and kept ourselves from blowing out a knee or something like that.
But my parents wouldn’t let me join the football team during that all-important freshman year, when positions were learned and depth charts created and the football tribe was effectively formed. They claimed it was because they wanted me to focus on my studies instead, but we all knew it was because of the risk of injury. As a fairly injury-prone kid, who had once broke a leg playing hide-and-go-seek, I could see their point there. But still, nobody would ever notice me–especially not the girls–if I didn’t hit the weight room and suit up for the football team.
My parents’ response? That’s just too bad.
So I didn’t play football in high school. I wrote for the school paper instead. I also appeared onstage in a couple of plays, including one where I got to put on football pads for one scene. It was a cruel reminder of what might have been.
The glory and the recognition that came from playing football in high school eluded me. But hearing what happened with Erik Kramer on Wednesday–on the heels of what happened to Dave Duerson and Junior Seau and Terry Long and who knows how many others I’ll never hear about–made me stop and think for a moment.
I came to realize that not wearing a football helmet–and thus not putting myself in a position where I’d get my bell rung on a meaningless 3rd down play when I was 17 years old–wasn’t such a bad thing, after all.
As a quarterback at the highest level of organized football, Erik Kramer must have suffered trauma to his head that I could never imagine. And he played in an era where coming out of a game, or suggesting that a hit had been too brutally applied, would earn all sorts of derision from his teammates. Remember, these were the days when Jack Tatum’s book “They Call Me Assassin” defined what it meant to be a football player.
Erik Kramer is 50 years old, just a few years older than I am right now. He reached the top of his profession, played in front of huge numbers of cheering fans, and earned millions of dollars in the process. I should envy his life, but I don’t. Whatever he did to his brain–forget the rest of his body, for a moment–is something he’s stuck with for the rest of his days.
I’m glad, on some level, that Kramer was not successful in killing himself. He has a family that would blame themselves forever if he had succeeded in taking his own life. But now he will continue to live with the conditions that brought him to the brink of suicide in the first place. And when he does die–whether by natural causes or anything else–science will be able to examine his brain and determine what we probably already know: head trauma’s a bitch.
So the numbers of football players are dropping all around the country, since more parents realize–as mine once did–that the risks are just too great. The game won’t go away as a money-making juggernaut, but it can’t continue as it did in the days when Erik Kramer played, either. More attention will be given to concussions and head trauma in general. Some methods of tackling are now prohibited, as with helmet-to-helmet contact. Injuries–especially to the head–will hopefully decline as a result.
But it’s only a matter of time until the next Erik Kramer comes along, suffering from the altered mental state that years of head trauma can induce. And then a few more parents will keep their sons away from the game, and so on and so on.
And on the off chance that my mom or dad is reading this, thank you. I hereby take back all the terrible things I said and thought about you back in 1982.